US auto sales for January are expected to show a sharp drop for Toyota after it pulled eight of its most popular models from showrooms last week following complaints over sticking accelerator pedals.

In the first public comment from an executive at Toyota’s head office, the company’s executive in charge of quality said he was expecting a bigger-than-usual impact from the recall.

“The sales forecast is something that we’re extremely worried about,” Executive Vice President Shinichi Sasaki he told a news conference in the central Japanese city of Nagoya.

“Already, I am hearing that sales have been affected somewhat in January,” he said.

On top of a separate recall for slipping floormats also linked to unintended acceleration, Toyota said some 9.1 million vehicles are now being recalled, more than its total group sales last year.

Although Toyota says the occurance of problems is rare, public confidence is being shaken by coverage of the saga, including the harrowing details of the crash of a Lexus blamed on unexpected acceleration that killed an off-duty California state-trooper and three members of his family last year.

Sasaki, who appeared alone in front of more than 100 reporters, offered no deep bow of apology as has been seen at other ‘scandal’-related media conferences in Japan.

Koji Endo, director at Advanced Research Japan, said there had been a lack of communication from the top of Toyota.

“I’ve never seen Toyota like this. Until recently, they had a culture of reacting swiftly to problems. But the impression I get now is that PR is not functioning very properly.”

Toyota President Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the company’s founder, has not formally addressed the public or media on the recall problems. While in Davos, Switzerland last weekend, he appeared briefly on broadcaster NHK and apologised to consumers.

The company’s US head, Jim Lentz, appeared on TV on Monday and also expressed his regret as part of a public relations blitz in Toyota’s largest market.

Sales monitored
Toyota detailed its plans to fix the faulty pedals on at least 4.2 million vehicles in North America and Europe with a small metal shim, or spacer, to prevent sticking.

Toyota said it would restart on February 8 production of the eight models including its popular Camry, Corolla and Rav4 models after an unprecedented one-week shutdown at six plants in the US and Canada.

Sasaki said costs were not taken into account with the recall and said they would monitor sales before reviewing their 2010 forecast.

Toyota last month forecast global auto sales to rise six percent this year but has since said that did not take the impact of the recalls into account.

The costs for the recall and the shutdown now look to come to roughly 100 billion yen to 200 billion yen ($1.1bn to $2.2bn), two analysts estimated.

“It’s a positive that we now can grasp what the direct costs might be, but Toyota has yet to address uncertainties about indirect costs, such as litigation costs and costs of incentives to win back customers,” said JP Morgan analyst Kohei Takahashi.

“The size of these indirect costs is of far greater importance” for Toyota’s future, he said.

Shares in Toyota rallied almost five percent in Tokyo on Tuesday following the company’s US announcement on the fix and restart for production.

The jump in its shares comes after about an 18 percent tumble over the last seven business days that wiped out more than $20bn in market capitalisation. A weaker yen also boosted shares, some investors said.

Lawsuits, delays
Toyota faces a growing number of lawsuits claiming it and its US supplier CTS Corp endangered drivers by not acting sooner to fix problems with faulty accelerator pedals.

Lawsuits announced on Monday in the US claimed Toyota had ignored signs of trouble with some of its top-selling models. The suits are part of what is expected to be a wave of litigation against the automaker for claims ranging from losses on car resale values to injury and death.

Analysts and dealers said it would take months for the automaker to fix all of the vehicles at risk of having an accelerator pedal stick in the open position.

Rivals such as General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co and Hyundai Motor Co have been offering discounts targeting Toyota customers.

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